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Nanette Fabray
Fabray in 1963
Ruby Bernadette Nanette Theresa Fabares

(1920-10-27)October 27, 1920
DiedFebruary 22, 2018(2018-02-22) (aged 97)
  • Actress
  • singer
  • dancer
Years active1924–2007
(m. 1947; div. 1951)
(m. 1957; died 1973)
RelativesShelley Fabares (niece)
Nanette Fabray 1950.

Nanette Fabray (born Ruby Bernadette Nanette Theresa Fabares;[1] October 27, 1920 – February 22, 2018) was an American actress, singer and dancer. She began her career performing in vaudeville as a child and became a musical-theatre actress during the 1940s and 1950s, acclaimed for her role in High Button Shoes (1947) and winning a Tony Award in 1949 for her performance in Love Life. In the mid-1950s, she served as Sid Caesar's comedic partner on Caesar's Hour, for which she won three Emmy Awards, and appeared with Fred Astaire in the film musical The Band Wagon. From 1979 to 1984, she played Katherine Romano, the mother of lead character Ann Romano, on the TV series One Day at a Time. She also appeared as the mother of Christine Armstrong (played by her niece Shelley Fabares) in the television series Coach.

Fabray had significant hearing impairment and was a longtime advocate for the rights of the deaf and hearing-impaired people. Her honors included the President's Distinguished Service Award and the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award.

Early life

Fabray was born Ruby Bernadette Nanette Theresa Fabares on October 27, 1920 in San Diego, California to Lily Agnes (McGovern), a housewife, and Raoul Bernard Fabares, a train conductor.[2]

She used one of her middle names, Nanette, as her first name in honor of a beloved aunt from San Diego named Nanette. Throughout life, she often used the nickname Nan.[1] Her family resided in Los Angeles, and Fabray's mother was instrumental in introducing her to showbusiness as a child. At a young age, she studied tap dance with, among others, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. She made her professional stage debut as Miss New Year's Eve 1923 at the Million Dollar Theater at the age of three.[3] She spent much of her childhood appearing in vaudeville productions as a dancer and singer under the name Baby Nan. She appeared with stars such as Ben Turpin.

Despite her mother's influence, Fabray was not interested in showbusiness as a young girl. Consequently, as an adult she did not believe in pushing children into performing at a young age.[1] However, because of her early dance training, Fabray considered herself to be primarily a tap dancer.[4] Despite a persistent rumor, she was never a regular or recurring guest in the Our Gang series, but she did appear as an extra during a party scene.[1]

Fabray's parents divorced when she was nine, but they continued living together for financial reasons. During the Great Depression, her mother converted their home into a boarding house, which Fabray and her siblings helped to run, and her main job was ironing clothes.[1] In her early teenage years, Fabray attended the Max Reinhardt School of the Theatre on a scholarship. She then attended Hollywood High School, participating in the drama program and graduating in 1939.[1] She bested classmate Alexis Smith for the lead in the school play during her senior year. Fabray entered Los Angeles Junior College in the fall of 1939, but she did not fare well and withdrew a few months later.[1]

Fabray experienced difficulty in school because of an undiagnosed hearing impairment. She was later diagnosed with conductive hearing loss related to congenital, progressive otosclerosis in her twenties after an acting teacher encouraged her to have her hearing tested. Fabray said of the experience, "It was a revelation to me. All these years I had thought I was stupid, but in reality, I just had a hearing problem."

In 2004, Fabray was interviewed[1] for the oral-history project of the Archives of American Television.[citation needed]


Pearl Bailey and Nanette Fabray in the Broadway musical Arms and the Girl (1950)


At the age of 19, Fabray made her feature-film debut as one of Bette Davis's ladies-in-waiting in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). She appeared in two additional films that year for Warner Bros., The Monroe Doctrine (short) and A Child Is Born, but was not signed to a long-term studio contract. She next appeared in the stage production Meet the People in Los Angeles in 1940, which then toured the United States in 1940–1941. In the show, she sang the opera aria "Caro nome" from Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto while tap dancing. During the show's New York run, Fabray was invited to perform the "Caro nome" number for a benefit at Madison Square Garden with Eleanor Roosevelt as the main speaker. Ed Sullivan was the master of ceremonies for the event and mispronounced her name, prompting her to subsequently change the spelling of her name from Fabares to the more easily pronounced Fabray.[5]

Artur Rodziński, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, saw Fabray's performance in Meet the People and offered to sponsor operatic vocal training for her at the Juilliard School. She studied opera at Juilliard with Lucia Dunham in 1941 while performing in her first Broadway musical, Cole Porter's Let's Face It!, with Danny Kaye and Eve Arden.[6] However, as she preferred performing in musical theatre over opera, she withdrew from the school after about five months.[1] She became a successful musical-theatre actress in New York during the 1940s and early 1950s, starring in such productions as By Jupiter (1942), My Dear Public (1943), Jackpot (1944), Bloomer Girl (1946), High Button Shoes (1947), Arms and the Girl (1950) and Make a Wish (1951). In 1949, she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Susan Cooper in the Kurt Weill/Alan Jay Lerner musical Love Life. She received a Tony nomination for her role as Nell Henderson in Mr. President in 1963 after an 11-year absence from the New York stage.[5] Fabray continued to tour in musicals for many years, appearing in such shows as Wonderful Town and No, No, Nanette.

Television and film

Fabray in 1957

In the mid-1940s, Fabray worked regularly for NBC on a variety of programs in the Los Angeles area. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, she made her first high-profile national television appearances performing on a number of variety programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show, Texaco Star Theatre and The Arthur Murray Party.

She also appeared on Your Show of Shows as a guest star opposite Sid Caesar. She appeared as a regular on Caesar's Hour from 1954 to 1956, winning three Emmys. Fabray left the show after a misunderstanding when her business manager made unreasonable demands for her third-season contract. Fabray and Caesar did not reconcile until years later.[7] In December 1956, she appeared in an episode of Playhouse 90 titled "The Family Nobody Wanted" alongside Lew Ayres and Tim Hovey.

In 1961, Fabray starred in 26 episodes of Westinghouse Playhouse, a half-hour sitcom series that also was known as The Nanette Fabray Show or Yes, Yes Nanette. The character was loosely based on herself and her life as a newlywed with new stepchildren.[8]

Fabray appeared as the mother of the main character in several television series such as One Day at a Time, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Coach, in which she played mother to real-life niece Shelley Fabares, who became a regular cast member in One Day at a Time.

Fabray made 13 guest appearances on The Carol Burnett Show. She performed on multiple episodes of The Dean Martin Show, The Hollywood Palace, Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall and The Andy Williams Show. She was a panelist on 230 episodes of the long-running game show The Hollywood Squares, a mystery guest on What's My Line? and later a panelist on Match Game in 1973. Other recurring game-show appearances included participation in Password, I've Got a Secret, He Said, She Said and Celebrity Bowling, Stump the Stars, Let's Make a Deal, All Star Secrets, and Family Feud.

She appeared in guest-starring roles on Burke's Law, Love, American Style, Maude, The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote. During the PBS program Pioneers of Television: Sitcoms, Mary Tyler Moore credited Fabray with inspiring her trademark comedic crying technique. In 1986, Fabray was cast in the pilot episode of the unsold TBS sitcom project Here to Stay.

In 1953, Fabray played her best-known screen role as a Betty Comden-like playwright in the MGM musical comedy "The Band Wagon", performing in, among others, the musical numbers "That's Entertainment" and "Louisiana Hayride"; and in "Triplets" which was also included in That's Entertainment, Part II. Fabray's additional film credits include The Happy Ending (1969), Harper Valley PTA (1978) and Amy (1981).[citation needed]

Fabray's final work occurred in 2007 when she appeared in The Damsel Dialogues, a musical revue at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks, California.

Personal life

Fabray's first husband David Tebet was in television marketing and talent and later became a vice president at NBC.[9] According to Fabray, their marriage ended in divorce partially because of her depression, anxiety and insecurity related to her worsening hearing loss. Her second husband was screenwriter Ranald MacDougall, whose writing credits include Mildred Pierce and Cleopatra and who served as president of the Writers Guild of America in the early 1970s, They were married from 1957 until MacDougall's death in 1973 and had one son together, Jamie MacDougall.[2]

Fabray lived in Pacific Palisades, California, and was the aunt of singer/actress Shelley Fabares. Her niece's 1984 wedding to M*A*S*H actor Mike Farrell was held at her home.[10] Fabray was associated with her longtime neighbor Ronald Reagan's campaign for the governorship of California in 1966.[11]

She was hospitalized for almost two weeks after being rendered unconscious by a falling pipe backstage during a live broadcast of Caesar's Hour in 1955.[2] The audience in the studio heard her screams and Sid Caesar had at first been told that she had been killed in the freak accident. Fabray suffered a serious concussion along with associated temporary vision impairment and photosensitivity/photophobia. Later, she realized that she had avoided being directly impaled because she was bending down rather than standing straight at the time of the accident.[12] In 1978, during the filming of Harper Valley PTA, Fabray suffered a second major concussion after falling, hitting her neck on the sidewalk and the back of her head on a rock. The accident was caused when a live elephant appearing in the film stampeded when spooked by a drunken bystander. Fabray developed associated memory loss and visual issues such as nystagmus but had to finish her scenes, including one involving a car chase. She was closely directed, coached and fed lines as she could not remember her lines or cues as a result of the concussion. She was filmed from specific angles to hide the abnormal eye movements that the concussion had temporarily caused.[13]


A longtime champion of hearing awareness and support of the deaf, she sat on boards and spoke at many related functions. A forward-thinking proponent of total communication and teaching the deaf language and communication in any way possible, including American Sign Language and not just the oralism method of the time, Fabray was one of, if not the first, to use sign language on [live] television,[14] something which she continued to showcase on many programs on which she made appearances, including the Carol Burnett Show, Match Game '73, and I've Got a Secret. She even contributed the story line to an entire 1982 episode[citation needed] of One Day at a Time, which focused on hearing loss awareness and acceptance, treatment options, and sign language. Fabray appeared in a 1986 infomercial for hearing device and deafness support products for House Ear Institute.[15] In 2001, she wrote to advice columnist Dear Abby to decry the loud background music played on television programs.[16] A founding member of the National Captioning Institute,[1] she also was one of the first big names[17] to bring awareness to the need for media closed-captioning.[18]

Likewise, after the passing of her second husband, Randy MacDougall, Fabray also started to learn about the tribulations associated with spousal death and began to bring awareness to the need for changes in the law for widows and widowers.[19] She focused her later years on campaigning for widows' rights, particularly pertaining to women's inheritance laws, taxes, and asset protection.[20]


Fabray died on February 22, 2018, at the Canterbury Nursing home in California at the age of 97 from natural causes.[21]


A Tony and three-time Primetime Emmy award winner, Fabray has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.[22] In 1986, she received a Life Achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild.

She won a Golden Apple award from the Hollywood Women's Press Club in 1960 along with Janet Leigh for being a Most Cooperative actress.[citation needed]

She was awarded the President's Distinguished Service Award and the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award for her long efforts on behalf of the deaf and hard-of-hearing.[22]

Partial filmography


Year Title Role
1939 The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex Mistress Margaret Radcliffe
1939 A Child Is Born Gladys Norton
1939 The Monroe Doctrine Rosita De La Torre
1953 The Band Wagon Lily Marton
1960 The Subterraneans Society Woman
1969 The Happy Ending Agnes
1970 The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County Sadie
1978 Harper Valley PTA Alice Finley
1981 Amy Malvina
1989 The McFalls (aka Personal Exemptions) Mildred McFall
1994 Teresa's Tattoo Martha Mae
2003 Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There Herself


Year Title Role Notes
1954–1956 Caesar's Hour Herself
1959 Laramie Essie Bright Episode: "Glory Road"
1960 Startime Sally Episode: "The Nanette Fabray Show, or Help Me, Aphrodite"
1961 The Nanette Fabray Show Nanette "Nan" McGovern 26 episodes
1966 Alice Through the Looking Glass The White Queen TV movie
Fame Is the Name of the Game Pat TV movie
1967–1972 The Carol Burnett Show Herself 13 episodes
1970 George M! Helen Costigan "Nellie" Cohan TV movie
But I Don't Want to Get Married! Mrs. Vale TV movie
1972 Magic Carpet Virginia Wolfe TV movie
The Couple Takes a Wife Marion Randolph TV movie
The Mary Tyler Moore Show Dottie Richards 2 episodes
1974 Happy Anniversary and Goodbye Fay TV movie
1977 Maude Katie Malloy Episode: "Maude's Reunion"
1978–1981 The Love Boat Shirley Simpson / Mitzy Monroe / Maggie O'Brian 3 episodes
1979–1984 One Day at a Time Grandma Katherine Romano 42 episodes
1979 The Man in the Santa Claus Suit Dora Dayton TV movie
1983–1986 Hotel Harriet Gold / Maggie Lewis 2 episodes
1989 The Munsters Today Dottie Episode: "Computer Mating"
1990–1994 Coach Mildred Armstrong 3 episodes
1991 Murder, She Wrote Emmaline Bristow Episode: "From the Horse's Mouth"
1993 The Golden Palace Fern Episode: "Rose and Fern"

Stage work



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j FoundationINTERVIEWS (March 25, 2008), Nanette Fabray - Archive Interview Part 1 of 6 - OOS, archived from the original on December 12, 2021, retrieved March 21, 2018
  2. ^ a b c Gates, Anita (February 23, 2018). "Nanette Fabray, Star of TV and Stage Comedies, Dies at 97". The New York Times. New York City. Retrieved February 23, 2018.
  3. ^ "Nanette Fabray, star of stage, screen and TV's 'One Day at a Time,' dies at 97". USA Today. McLean, Virginia: Gannett Company. Associated Press. February 23, 2018. Retrieved February 23, 2018.
  4. ^ HERMAN, JAN (January 19, 1991). "Hoofer at Heart, Funny Lady on the Stage : Performance: Comedic roles gravitate to actress-tap dancer Nanette Fabray. She appears Sunday at Laguna Beach's Moulton Theatre". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved March 22, 2018.
  5. ^ a b "Howard, Jennifer (August 12, 2004). "Interview with Nanette Fabray". Archive of American Television. North Hollywood, Los Angeles: Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation. Retrieved February 23, 2018.
  6. ^ "Mrs. Lucia Dunham, Juilliard Teacher". The New York Times. New York City. April 3, 1959. p. 27.
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  8. ^ FoundationINTERVIEWS (March 25, 2008), Nanette Fabray - Archive Interview Part 3 of 6, archived from the original on February 6, 2020, retrieved March 22, 2018
  9. ^ Lenker, Maureen Lee (February 23, 2018). "Nanette Fabray, Tony winner, and star of original One Day at a Time, dies at 97". Entertainment Weekly. New York City: Meredith Corporation. Retrieved February 23, 2018.
  10. ^ Sanz, Cynthia (April 15, 1991). "Shelley Fabares Fell for a Former M*a*s*h-Er, Mike Farrell". People. United States: Time Inc. Archived from the original on May 10, 2012. Retrieved February 24, 2016.
  11. ^ Critchlow 2013, p. 191.
  12. ^ FoundationINTERVIEWS (July 22, 2015), Nanette Fabray discusses an accident on the set of "Caesar's Hour" - EMMYTVLEGENDS.ORG, archived from the original on December 12, 2021, retrieved March 21, 2018
  13. ^ FoundationINTERVIEWS (September 23, 2011), Nanette Fabray Interview Part 5 of 6 - EMMYTVLEGENDS.ORG, archived from the original on December 12, 2021, retrieved March 21, 2018
  14. ^ FoundationINTERVIEWS (July 22, 2015), Nanette Fabray discusses doing sign language on "The Carol Burnett Show" - EMMYTVLEGENDS.ORG, archived from the original on December 12, 2021, retrieved March 21, 2018
  15. ^ House Ear Institute (August 31, 2016), PI 6 Extra Sense Assistive Listening Devices for the Hearing Impaired 1985, archived from the original on December 12, 2021, retrieved March 21, 2018
  16. ^ "Letter to Dear Abby". Uexpress. United States: Andrews McMeel Universal. April 6, 2001. Retrieved February 23, 2018.
  17. ^ "Video: March 23, 1979: Nanette Fabray campaigns for closed captions on television". ABC News. Retrieved March 21, 2018.
  18. ^ pannoni 8 (July 22, 2017), November 16, 1986 commercials, archived from the original on December 12, 2021, retrieved March 21, 2018((citation)): CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  19. ^ "Fabray, With Flair". Washington Post. April 19, 1984. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved March 21, 2018.
  20. ^ BLemack (February 24, 2018), Nanette Fabray 1991 Interview with Brad Lemack (Courtesy of, archived from the original on December 12, 2021, retrieved March 21, 2018
  21. ^ McLellan, Dennis (February 23, 2018). "Actress Nanette Fabray, who won Tony and Emmy awards, dies at 97". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles. Retrieved February 23, 2018.
  22. ^ a b Erdman, Shelby Lin (February 23, 2018). "Actress Nanette Fabray, Tony, Emmy-winning star of stage and screen, dead at 97". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Dunwoody, Georgia: Cox Enterprises. Cox Media Group. Retrieved February 23, 2018.